Monthly Archives: April 2018

Eric Betzig goes deep, again: 3D movies of cellular activity

Eric Betzig‘s lab at the Janelia Research Campus has just released a jaw-dropping high-definition 3D movie of cellular machinery in motion.  Words are not sufficient to describe the beauty of the data and the impact of the method which will soon be made available to researchers interested in using or developing it.

I met the man a few times during my postdoctoral life at Bell Laboratories where he was a research scientist.  An acknowledged star in a building full of brilliant people, his Near-Field Scanning Optical Microscope was considered Nobel worthy.  The Labs went down the tubes a few years later when the MBA visigoths took over.  Betzig left, reinvented himself a couple of times, and came back with even more pathbreaking ideas in microscopy that overcame what he felt were insurmountable limitations of his first breakthrough.  He went to Stockholm in 2014 for the newer inventions and the doors they opened.  The Prize has not slowed him down.

The Janelia public release has details and links to several videos, including the one below.

The technical paper appears in the latest issue of Science Magazine.

Observing the cell in its native state: Imaging subcellular dynamics in multicellular organisms
T. Liu
Science 360, eaaq1392 (2018). DOI: 10.1126/science.aaq1392
The Abstract is also available through PubMed

Youtube Channel: The Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Calling the shot: Brian Metzger on kilonovae

Soon after LIGO‘s first detection of a black hole-black hole merger, the astronomical community was hinting about a potentially more scientifically  exciting event within the interferometer’s grasp: The merging of two neutron stars. When two dark objects coalesce, the product is unsurprisingly dark. Colliding neutron stars on the other hand might emit light of some kind and the collision product need not necessarily be a black hole. More intriguingly, so-called kilonovae resulting from neutron star collisions have been proposed as the actual origin in our universe of many elements heavier than iron, challenging the conventional wisdom of these coming from supernovae.

Here’s a prescient talk by Prof. Brian Metzger of Columbia University and coiner of the term ‘kilonova’ on the consequences of neutron star binary mergers. He discusses their signatures in the gravitational wave record and across the electromagnetic spectrum to their ultimate role in nuclear synthesis. Given at Harvard on 16 March 2017, it is quite accessible for a technical colloquium presentation. A mere five months later on 17 August 2017, LIGO and its European counterpart VIRGO indeed detected the merger of two neutron stars and set of a flurry of observational activity across the globe and in space which confirmed at least qualitatively the predictions by Metzger and his group.

The details are still confusing.  For example, we can assume that it takes a long time for two neutron stars to form, presumably from the death as a supernova of each of a large, but not too large, binary pair.  These violent events will eject a lot of material into the interstellar medium.  The neutron stars then spiral slowly and combine, releasing a lot of neutrons to stick to light elements, transmuting them up the periodic table through the r-process.  But, where do these light elements come from if the ejecta from each of the progenitor stars has had a very long time to spread? (*)

Harvard’s Edo Berger has a concise summary of the multimessenger gold rush incited by the event in a special issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.  Many of the papers are free to download.  As an aside, I was acquainted with Edo when he was an undergraduate physics student at UCLA while I was a researcher in the same department.  I had no idea then he’d become one of the Dukes of Earl of  high energy astrophysics.

(*) Addendum 20 April 2019: After a year of futility in not finding an answer to this question, I emailed Prof. Metzger and asked.  In a prompt and gracious reply he said that the ejecta from the merging neutron stars create the seed nuclei required for the r-process.  There are sufficient protons (10-30%) in the ejecta to form nuclei of mass number ~100 within milliseconds.  These then absorb further neutrons within the constraints of beta decay to create very heavy elements within a few seconds.  So,  it seems that neutron stars aren’t neutrons all the way down!

30 May 2020: New video source; prior channel was deleted.

Youtube Channel: CfA Colloquium


Youtube Channel: Kowch737


Lyrical Gangsta: Nature on Tom Lehrer

Tom Lehrer at 90: a life of scientific satire

Andrew Robinson celebrates the high notes in the mathematician’s inimitable musical oeuvre.
Lehrer agrees with mathematician Stanislaw Ulam (one of the builders of the atomic bomb) that rhyming “forces novel associations … and becomes a sort of automatic mechanism of originality”. As he told me in 2008: “If ‘von Braun’ didn’t happen to rhyme with ‘down’ (and a few other words), the most quoted couplet in the song would not exist, and in all probability the song itself would not have been written.”

Closer to home, Nancy Keystone‘s ‘Apollo’ trilogy cast sharp, cynical, brilliant eyes on whitewashing Nazi rocket scientists into America’s space program.

Vimeo Channel: Nancy Keystone


Expectation Values: ‘St. Joan’ at The Broad Stage

Taken by itself,  Bedlam’s production of Shaw’s ‘St. Joan’ was well-performed and well-received.  Four performers gave it their all and the audience acknowledged them enthusiastically at the end of the three hour evening.  Unfortunately it suffers when compared to director Eric Tucker’s 2005 effort in the SFV.   Fallible memory is part of the problem.  It is too easy to add details to an enjoyable evening – details that creep into memory even though they may not have occurred.  At more pressing issue is the misfit between the production’s ambitions and the venue.  The Broad Stage seats 499 in relative comfort, a far cry from the tiny warehouse off of Vineland with bleacher seating moved in-show by the cast.  The conventional proscenium stage dilutes the impact of the performances with every passing row.  Those of us who selected the “on stage” option were seated in the back of the hall for the first and third acts and brought on stage only for the second.   The website stated that the audience would be onstage for one or two acts, not being clear which production (‘Hamlet’ runs in rep) would have which.

The 2005 production had Tucker, David Neher, and Eloise Ayala performing the twenty-plus non-Joan roles to better effect than the three performers who divided the tasks here, playing from the aisles and seats as the show progressed – common festival approach that feels oddly out-of-place indoors.  It is hard to see subtle character shifts from a long distance and the uneven accent work didn’t help matters.    The second act allowed those onstage to see and hear up close the back-room dealings and intrigue that make so much of this play.  There is something about the maid, though. Aundria Brown is a compelling Joan, elevating the production whenever she’s on.  We get Shaw didactic, Shaw political, Shaw polemical, Shaw militant, and Shaw comical in spades.  The payoff is when imprisoned, tortured, and bullied Joan recants her confession in a marvelous third act speech preferring death to  dungeon life away from her land, her animals, and her soldiers.  For this seldom seen Shaw pastoral (‘Village Wooing’ being a notable exception), we are again in the back of beyond with the impact correspondingly blunted.  It would have made more sense to have the audience on stage for this than the courtly intrigue although it would have required a major rethinking of the staging and stagecraft. This production does include the final dream sequence where the characters reassemble and wrap things up in a sweet epilogue.

It would have been nice to see the Bighead/Bedlam minimalist aesthetic continue in Los Angeles but no one can blame Tucker for heading back east.  Grapes may grow best in stony soil but arts organizations need more arable land.  This  ‘St. Joan’ ultimately has to compete against its younger, poorer, fearless, and reckless self.   It’s fighting a fond memory and there are few tougher opponents.

Hamlet and St. Joan
Bedlam Theatre Co.
in repertory at The Broad Stage
5 April to 15 April 2018
1310 11th Street
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Tickets: Box Office: 310 434 3200 and online at The Broad’s website

Bedlam in Santa Monica: Hamlet and St. Joan at The Broad Stage

7 April 2018 Update: Post-performance notes available here

Photo courtesy C. King Photography

It’s just bedlam, I tell ya… I don’t normally pay attention to Santa Monica’s The Broad Stage but their recent postcard was a grabber.  Eric Tucker and his Bedlam Theatre are bringing their minimalist Shakes and Shav to town as part of a national tour.  Before Bedlam, there was Bighead Theatricalities where Tucker’s kinetic stage sculptures played to very enthusiastic yet typically tiny LA audiences in a San Fernando Valley industrial park.  We few, the happy few, would not forget what we saw.

Fast forward a few years, Tucker is the toast of New York and returns to Southern California, albeit briefly, with a new cast but to all accounts the same approach.  No one can know whether the magic will strike again, whether a production for 4 patrons will scale to 499, or if it will blend as the young people say.   It could be fun to find out.  Details, including the Program Guide, are available at The Broad’s website where  Tucker’s bio says nothing about his LA stay and success – also sadly typical.

Hamlet and St. Joan
Bedlam Theatre Co.
in repertory at The Broad Stage
5 April to 15 April 2018
1310 11th Street
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Tickets: Box Office: 310 434 3200 and online at The Broad’s website